Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Google bombs expose the belly of the search engine in a way that may unsettle the grateful, contented Googler -- "Wait a minute, Google is not a pure stream of Truth from God? You're saying any Internet user can supply the word associations that generate relevant results?" It's true. The sadder, wiser Googler must be aware that Internet search results, perhaps like all information, should be taken with a grain of salt and a bow to context.
One might well regard results from Google, and other search engines
that rank pages by anchor, as poll results rather than pointers to facts. Like all polls, such search results are subject to sampling error. For example, excited bloggers, who bombed the web site of George W. Bush's biography with the anchor word "failure," caused Google's poll results to represent disproportionately their own opinions. But they also did a public service by demonstrating the importance of taking free information cautiously.
To point, subtler biases have always existed. Recently Google's first page of responses to "failure" included pages about George W. Bush, Michael Moore, heart failure, a group of cartoonists, and American Women's Suffrage. These pages all discuss important topics that, sadly, get extra attention in rich nations whose citizens have the time and money to explore them. Thus, one might conclude that Google has never returned links that completely profile "failure" because the Internet's user community is limited by wealth and leisure time. Thus, Google bombs do not necessarily damage the integrity of search results, but merely dispel any myth about such integrity. Here's to informed Googling.
It is perfectly plausible that an individual, perhaps from another society, would attempt to understand failure as our society does. It is also plausible this individual would turn to the fathoms of the Internet to begin their quest for understanding.
Plumbing those depths is Google, and if this hypothetical researcher were to type "failure" into the site's friendly search field the list returned would not clearly illuminate our definition of failure. Indeed, what would be returned might serve to confuse, more than clarify.
Within neither of the top two sites found, the biographies of George W. Bush and Michael Moore, does the word "failure" appear.
After a Google bomb a page's position on the list is less a reflection of its content and more of the prerogative of a third party creating links. And while, to the designer, the implied connection between anchor and page may seem clever or a bit subversive, on the whole this wit is to the detriment of the Internet Community.
To see why let's return to the fictional researcher: when he or she searches for "failure" with Google the results do not, on the whole, do not directly define failure. Yet, some do provide a flavor of what the word means. Heart failure, renal failure, brain failure, bridge failure, and a number of others do not define the term, but, within the context of the pages themselves, one can glean an understanding of the word. Heart failure, for example, can be understood to be the cessation of normal heart function and one can understand that simply by reading the page itself - without the benefit of formal medical education or further definition. The web page illuminates the meaning.
However, the first two pages, supposedly the most likely to relate to failure, have no such internal illumination and therefore, to understand why the list is ordered the way it is, one has to know why a web designer might have chosen to link to those pages with "failure" as an anchor. Unfortunately, Google does not usually provide this context, this yardstick, for the results it lists.
We have blogger Adam Mathes to thank for generating awareness about the meaning of Google's search results. In a 2001 article
, Mathes coins the term, "Google Bombing," and sets out to test his theory of anchors by encouraging other bloggers to associate one Andy Pressman with the phrase "talentless hack." Before Pressman got bombed, Google's method of page ranking was largely unknown and part of the Google experience was missing: some Internet users may then have been in the habit of Googling with healthy skepticism, but they could not have known just what those hundreds of links represented.
The light cast by Google bombing also allows us to appreciate the elegance of Google's search strategy: it combines the strengths of computers--speedy calculations and communication--with the unbound ability of the human brain to make meaningful associations. How wonderful to think of oneself as a crucial component of the most powerful Internet search algorithm!
The approach of relying on user-made associations may be elegant indeed, as Google bombs have a way of self-regulating. When a bomb gets too popular, high-juice
sites may link to it, pushing the bomb out of Google's top slot and taking it for themselves. This seems to have been the fate of Mathes' "talentless hack" bomb, which recently pointed back to his own high-juice site. In a curious, recursive way, Google's search results for that phrase no longer represent a false association, but instead record the history of Google bombing itself as a benign, self-cleaning, virtual übergraffiti.
Just as failure must be understood in terms of a situation, so too the websites that Google returns for a search of "failure." Unless the user already knows the political situation that might have given rise to the idea that either of the two individuals may be a failure, the pages, as they relate to failure itself, are worthless.
Because these sites do not use the word searched for, nor reference it in any way they become more of the false positives that plague search engines. A problem that PageRank, among others, was designed to avoid.
The "failure search" is an extreme example of Google bombing. So much so that Google provides a disclaimer on the page whenever the word is searched for. However, is it possible to know if other sites are affected in a more covert way? If the results of this innocuous word can be corrupted in such a pervasive way, what of the countless other words and phrases that are searched for daily and which return lists which may or may not be compromised?
The Internet is a tool. Yet, it is an imperfect tool. It is only effective inasmuch as we, the Internet Community, are willing to make it effective. Google is partly responsible for making this tool as useful as it is. But Google relies on our efforts. And if we continue to deliberately skew results for any reason we may find ourselves with a tool that has become a failure.